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A 5am start. Coffee gulped, breakfast contained within a cereal bar. Sitting in a car at 5.45am, rushing at speed towards Wiltshire. This was how my Thursday began last week.

With me was Tim Hole, founder of Breathe Labs. Described as an operating system for diversity, BREATHE is a half-day workshop for organisations that helps diverse groups of people come together, be their authentic selves and generate ideas that can be taken forward. I was there to learn all about it.

Given the title of co-facilitator, my actual job was mostly one of observing. As part of my own personal development, which I wrote about here, I’m experimenting with new ways to learn. In this case, I’d asked Tim to donate his time and effort – although he also decided to pay me for my time – bringing me along and teaching me how to run a BREATHE workshop.

And, wow, what a learning experience.

I’ve run my fair share of workshops, and designed a few programmes myself. Yet, it’s always interesting to see how others do things. Some of Tim’s approach was very new to me, yet incredibly effective. Within three hours he’d managed to get a disparate group of people from a leading datacentre company, across every department and a variety of functions, to agree on an idea to take forward from the many that were generated, with clear actions they needed to do to ensure things happened.

Thinking done throughout the workshop is both convergent and divergent, in and out, just like breathing. Careful framing of questions gives the workshop momentum, and everyone gets to input on every idea. It’s incredibly democratic.

Everyone participating was thoroughly engaged, and time flew. I even managed to input some ideas of my own into the workshop structure, which Tim was kind enough to say were useful to him.

We repeated the workshop in the afternoon with a different group, and they generated entirely different ideas using the structure Tim has devised.

There was much to take away from the day, but the one thing that stands out is how Tim was able to ensure one idea alone was taken forward. Getting agreement isn’t easy, but I was shown how it could be.

Building Consensus
Finding a way to get people to vote effectively for an idea is hard. It’s easy to shoot down an idea if you’ve got a loud voice, or if you’re the budget owner. There are hundreds of reasons some people’s ideas get heard and accepted while others don’t. Yet, what if there was a way in which everyone had an equal voice and a voting mechanism that allowed these equal voices to be heard?

One of the pieces of the Breathe methodology that helped achieve this is called Systemic Consensus.

This is a principle for an effective decision making process in groups. The aim of Systemic Consensus is to reach “sustainable and conflict-free” solutions. To do this, participants vote for using a resistance scale – 0 for an idea to which there is no resistance, and 10 for maximum resistance to whatever is being proposed. Everything in between is nuanced.

Not only does it help large groups get to the best idea quickly, it gives that idea the best chance of success. Check out the video and you too can learn about how to get a group of people to agree on which solution to take forward.

At 8.30pm, I arrived home. Energised by the day, despite the fatigue I felt from travelling, and ready to think about how I would be using some of the techniques I’d learned from Tim and his BREATHE workshop in my own work.